What if Grantland Rice had covered The Players?

By Brandel ChambleeMay 11, 2017, 8:04 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In 1935 when Gene Sarazen holed a 4-wood for a double eagle on the 15th hole in the final round of the Augusta National Invitational ( it wouldn’t be known as the Masters until 1939), it may have been “the shot heard round the world” as the famed writer Grantland Rice called it, but it was not a shot that led to him winning a major championship or for that matter, the career Grand Slam.

Gene Sarazen won the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, which at the time was a small, convivial gathering of Bob Jones’ friends in the game, and some of the best players in the world; exactly as the name implied, it was an Invitational, not a major. In 1935 the “majors” were the U.S. Open, The Open Championship, the PGA Championship, the Western Open and the amateur championships of the United States and the U.K.

When it is said of Bobby Jones that he won 13 majors, it is rarely qualified as that breaking down to seven professional major wins (four U.S. Opens and three Open Championships) and six amateur major wins ( five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur). Owing to the fact that Jones lived in an era when it was not unusual for amateurs to win professional majors, and golf was almost exclusively an upper-class game controlled by amateurs, amateurs championships held an exalted place on par with professional majors. This was slow to change.

Not as slow to change was the way in which the Masters was viewed by the media and then the world. And there is a parallel with this week's gathering at TPC Sawgrass, The Players Championship. I'll get to that in a moment.

Grantland Rice was the man who dubbed the backfield of the 1924 Notre Dame fighting Irish football team the “Four Horsemen." That was a biblical reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In a passage that has become perhaps the most famous in sports writing history, Rice wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on October 18:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.    

And the rest is history.

The Players Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The 1920s was an era where the atrocities of World War I and the massive death toll from the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which killed 50-100 million people worldwide, were still heavy on the minds of the American public. Looking for a diversion, they found it in the writings of men who became known as myth makers. Rice, O.B. Keeler, W.O. McGeehan and scores of other sportswriters filled columns with classical allusions and wrote florid prose about sports stars, and reading about them in the newspapers became an American pastime.

Rice was the most read and most famous of them all, and he was an early member of Augusta National and played a role in its growth as a club and an even bigger role in the Masters becoming a major. He knew everyone, and everyone wanted to know him and what he wrote held sway in the world. When Sarazen hit that famed shot on 15, perhaps a few hundred people saw it, but when Rice wrote that it was “the shot heard 'round the world,” the trajectory of the tournament sizzled like Sarazen’s 4-wood.

Nobody can point to the exact date when the Masters became a major, but by 1960 when Arnold Palmer had won it for a second time, and Herbert Warren Wind had two years previously named the second shot at 11, the tee shot at 12 and the tee shot at 13, Amen Corner, it most certainly was. Intoxicated with the beauty and influenced by the powerful men who were members and the powerful words of one member, the rest of the media fell in line and rewrote the history books.

Men who had won an Invitational were retroactively credited with a major and so it was written that Gene Sarazen completed the career Grand Slam in 1935, when he did no such thing. In actuality Sarazen had won the U.S. Open, the PGA, The Open and the Western Open by 1932, but at some point and again no one can say exactly when, the Western Open lost its major status, and the Masters gained major status and the records of men changed. Nobody seemed to mind. Nor did they mind when the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur quit being counted as majors.

All of this brings me to an event that is a major and as of yet isn’t counted as one.

The Players began in 1974, and unlike the Augusta National Invitational, whose co-founder Bobby Jones wanted it to be a humble annual gathering and nothing more, The Players from the beginning was heralded as the game’s fifth major. Within 30 years that humble gathering was one of the game’s four biggest events; it’s been over 40 years and The Players can still only claim that it is the PGA Tour’s flagship event. Why?

Majors dominate the conversation in the golf world with Jack’s 18 and Tiger’s 14 a common thread. Those numbers seem inviolate, but Jack once had 20 before his Amateurs were subtracted from the total for some unknown reason. Perhaps because Tiger won three U.S. Amateurs to Jack’s two, which would put Woods only three majors back and not four, but that's another story. The point is, major records have been redacted, reduced, added to and changed almost as long as the game has been played. When the rise in prestige of one event grows to a point it no longer suffices to call it just a “big tournament” or lessens to a degree it is no longer worthy of major status, the records have been amended, surreptitious as it may be.

If Grantland Rice were alive today he would’ve written that Rickie Fowler’s laser-like irons at 17 and drives on 18 two years ago reminded him of Zeus, throwing thunderbolts, and if Herbert Warren Wind were alive he would’ve written that Fowler at The Players, on holes 17 and 18, otherwise known as Heaven and Hell, was both punisher and peacemaker and that HE was the golden boy of this new golden era in golf. Or something infinitely better than that …and then of course they would’ve written that The Players, the best field in golf, on Pete Dye’s masterpiece was golf’s newest major.

And the rest would be history.

So give Jack Nicklaus his three and Tiger Woods his two and Jack now has 23 majors (counting his amateurs) to Tiger’s 19 (counting his amateurs) and Tiger is still four back, but who’s counting?

Getty Images

Arizona grabs last spot with eagle putt, playoff win

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 3:18 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – With her team freefalling in the standings, Arizona coach Laura Ianello was down to her last stroke.

The Wildcats began the final round of the NCAA Championship in third place, but they were 19 over par for the day, and outside the top-8 cut line, with only one player left on the course.

Bianca Pagdaganan had transferred from Gonzaga to compete for NCAA titles, and on the 17th hole Ianello told her that she needed to play “the best two holes of your life” to keep the dream alive.

She made par on 17, then hit a 185-yard 6-iron out of a divot to 30 feet. Not knowing where she stood on the final green, Pagdaganan felt an eerie calm over the ball. Sure enough, she buried the eagle putt, setting off a raucous celebration and sending the Wildcats into a play-five, count-four team playoff with Baylor at 33 over par.

Their match-play spot wasn’t yet secure, but Ianello still broke down in tears.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

“Bianca is such an inspiration for all of us,” she said. “She’s the kind of kid that you want to root for, to have good things happen to.”

Arizona prevailed on the second playoff hole. As the 8 seed, the Wildcats will play top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals Tuesday at Karsten Creek.

Though the finish had plenty of drama, no teams played their way into the coveted top 8 on the final day of stroke-play qualifying.

Baylor came closest. The Bears barely advanced past regionals after a mysterious stomach virus affected several players and coaches. They competed in the final round with just four healthy players.

On Monday, Gurleen Kaur put Baylor in position to advance, shooting 68, but the Bears lost by three strokes on the second extra hole.

Arkansas finished one shot shy of the team playoff. The second-ranked Razorbacks, who entered NCAAs as one of the pre-tournament favorites, having won seven times, including their first SEC title, couldn’t overcome a 308-300 start and finished 10th. Player of the Year favorite Maria Fassi finished her week at 19 over par and counted only two rounds toward the team total.

Getty Images

Kupcho gets redemption with NCAA title

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 2:54 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – Driving from Chicago to Denver the night of the 2017 NCAA Women’s Championship, Mike Kupcho was worried about what the next two days might bring.

A few hours earlier, he’d watched his 20-year-old daughter, Jennifer, take a two-shot lead into the 71st hole at Rich Harvest Farms. With just 127 yards left for her approach, she hit her pitching wedge the one place she couldn’t afford to miss – short, in the pond – and then compounded the error with a three-putt. The triple bogey dropped her one shot behind Arizona State’s Monica Vaughn.

Kupcho conducted a series of teary interviews afterward, but she had no time to dwell on the heartbreaking finish. She hopped on a plane back home and competed in a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier two days later.

“We were worried about how she’d react – I didn’t know what to expect,” Mike said. “I would have been a wreck.”

But Jennifer fired a 66 in the opening round, then a 72 in the afternoon to earn medalist honors.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

“Well,” Mike said, “I guess she’s over it.”

Kupcho made it official Monday at Karsten Creek, claiming the NCAA title that should have been hers last May.

The Wake Forest junior won by two shots – the same margin she blew a year ago – for her fourth victory of the season, vaulting her into contention for the Annika Award.

“It’s just exciting to get here after everything I’ve been through,” she said.

Entering the final round in a share of the lead, Kupcho birdied the first but played Nos. 5-7 in 4 over par. It seemed like another collapse was brewing.

“I told her she’s going to have to face some adversity at some point,” said Wake Forest assistant Ryan Potter, who walked alongside her Monday. “There was a lot of golf to play, especially on a course like this.”

A birdie on 11 sent her on her way. She added a birdie on the drivable 12th, dropped another one on the par-5 14th and then canned a 60-footer for birdie on 16.

And so there she was again, two shots clear with two holes to go, when she stepped to the tee on the 17th. She piped a drive down the center, then flushed her approach directly over the flag, leading to a stress-free par. On 18, with water all the way down the left side, she nuked her second shot into the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie.

If there were any lingering questions about whether Kupcho could close, she answered them emphatically Monday. She carded five back-nine birdies for a two-shot victory over Stanford’s Andrea Lee (66) and Arizona’s Bianca Pagdaganan (72).

“Redemption,” Potter said. “She knew she could do it. It was just a matter of holding the trophy.”

After last year’s devastating finish, Potter tacked a photo on his closet wall of a victorious Arizona State team posing with the NCAA trophy. Each day was a reminder of how close they’d come.

“That sticks with you,” he said.

There were areas of Kupcho's game to shore up – namely chipping and bunker play – and she worked tirelessly to turn them into strengths. She built momentum throughout the season, culminating with a dominant regional performance in which she tied a school record by shooting 15 under, holed the winning putt to send her teammates to the NCAA Championship and became just the second player in history to win a regional in consecutive years.

“She’s interesting,” Potter said, “because the bigger the tournament, the bigger the stage, the better she plays.”

Indeed, Kupcho became the first player in a decade to finish in the top 6 in three consecutive NCAAs.

Here at Karsten Creek, she tied a women’s course record with a 7-under 65 in the opening round. And even though she backed up on Day 2, she played the last two rounds in 3 under to claim the title.

The one she kicked away a year ago.

Getty Images

Kupcho wins NCAA title; final eight teams set

By Jay CoffinMay 22, 2018, 1:55 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – On one of the more nerve-racking days of the college golf season two important honors were up for grabs at Karsten Creek – the individual title, and the top eight teams attempting to qualify for match play.

Here’s the lowdown of what happened Monday at the women’s NCAA Championship:

Individual leaderboard (total scores): Jennifer Kupcho, Wake Forest (-8); Andrea Lee, Stanford (-6); Bianca Pagdanganan, Arizona (-6); Cheyenne Knight, Alabama (-5); Morgane Metraux, Florida State (-4); Jaclyn Lee, Ohio State (-3).

Team leaderboard: UCLA (+9), Alabama (+9), USC (+16), Northwestern (+21), Stanford (+28), Duke (+30), Kent State (+32), Arizona (+33).

What it means: Let’s start with the individual race. Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho was absolutely devastated a year ago when she made triple bogey on the 17th hole of the final round and lost the individual title by a shot. She was bound not to let that happen again and this year she made five birdies on the last eight holes to shoot 71 and win by two shots. Kupcho is the first player with three consecutive top-six finishes at the NCAA Championship since Duke’s Amanda Blumenherst (2007-09).

The team race took an unexpected turn at the end of the day when Arizona junior Bianca Pangdaganan made eagle on the last hole to vault the Wildcats into an eighth-place tie, meaning they would enter a playoff with Baylor for the final spot in the match play portion of the championship.

The Wildcats got a reprieve because they played terribly for most of the day and dropped from third place to 10th at one point. In the playoff, Arizona ultimately defeated Baylor in an anticlimactic finish.

Best of the rest: Stanford played horribly the first round. So bad that it almost seemed like the Cardinal shot itself out of the championship. But they played steady over the next three days and ended with the fifth seed. This is the fourth year in a row that Stanford has advanced to match play.

Round of the day: USC shot a 5-under total on Monday, the best round of the day by six shots. They landed as the third seed and will play Duke in the quarterfinals.

Stanford sophomore Andrea Lee shot a 7-under 65, the best score of the day by three shots. Lee made seven birdies and no bogeys and vaulted up the leaderboard 11 spots to end in a tie for sixth place.

Biggest disappointment: Arkansas, the second-ranked team in the country, missed qualifying for match play by one shot. The Razorbacks shot a 20-over 308 in Round 1 and played only slightly better with a 300 in the second round. Consecutive 1-over-par 289 scores were a good try, but results in a huge miss for a team expected to contend for the team title.

Here are Tuesday morning's quarterfinal matchups:

Cut and not so dry: Shinnecock back with a new look

By Bradley S. KleinMay 21, 2018, 9:22 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The last time the USGA was here at Shinnecock Hills, it nearly had a train wreck on its hands. The last day of the 2004 U.S. Open was so dry and the turf so firm that play was stopped in the morning just to get some water on the greens.

The lessons learned from that debacle are now on display three weeks before Shinnecock gets another U.S. Open. And this time, the USGA is prepared with all sorts of high-tech devices – firmness meters, moisture monitors, drone technology to measure turf temperatures - to make sure the playing surfaces remain healthy.

Players, meanwhile, will face a golf course that is 548 yards longer than a dozen years ago, topping out now at 7,445 yards for the par-70 layout. Ten new tees have assured that the course will keep up with technology and distance. They’ll also require players to contend with the bunkering and fairway contours that designer William Flynn built when he renovated Shinnecock Hills in 1930.

And those greens will not only have more consistent turf cover, they’ll also be a lot larger – like 30 percent bigger. What were mere circles averaging 5,500 square feet are now about 7,200 square feet. That will mean more hole locations, more variety to the setup, and more rollouts into surrounding low-mow areas. Slight misses that ended up in nearby rough will now be down in hollows many more yards away.

The course now has an open, windswept look to it – what longtime green chairman Charles Stevenson calls “a maritime grassland.” You don’t get to be green chairman of a prominent club for 37 years without learning how to deal with politics, and he’s been a master while implementing a long-term plan to bring the course back to its original scale and angles. In some cases that required moving tees back to recapture the threat posed by cross-bunkers and steep falloffs. Two of the bigger extensions come on the layout’s two par-5s, which got longer by an average of 60 yards. The downwind, downhill par-4 14th hole got stretched 73 yards and now plays 519.

“We want players to hit driver,” says USGA executive director Mike Davis.

The also want to place an emphasis upon strategy and position, which is why, after the club had expanded its fairways the last few years, the USGA decided last September to bring them back in somewhat.

The decision followed analysis of the driving statistics from the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where wide fairways proved very hospitable to play. Players who made the cut averaged hitting 77 percent of fairways and driving it 308 yards off the tee. There was little fear of the rough there. “We didn’t get the wind and the dry conditions we anticipated,” says Davis.

Moving ahead to Shinnecock Hills, he and the setup staff wanted to balance the need for architectural variety with a traditional emphasis upon accuracy. So they narrowed the fairways at Shinnecock Hills last September by seven acres. They are still much wider than in the U.S. Opens played here in 1986, 1995 and 2004, when the average width of the landing areas was 26.6 yards. “Now they are 41.6 yards across on average,” said Davis. So they are much wider than in previous U.S. Opens and make better use of the existing contours and bring lateral bunkers into play.

This time around, with more consistent, healthier turf cover and greens that have plenty of nutrients and moisture, the USGA should be able to avoid the disastrous drying out of the putting surfaces that threatened that final day in 2004. The players will also face a golf course that is more consistent than ever with its intended width, design, variety and challenge. That should make for a more interesting golf course and, by turn, more interesting viewing.